BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO agreed on Tuesday to enforce an arms embargo on Libya but failed to resolve a bigger wrangle over who should run the military campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces once the United States steps back.
France says NATO must not take political control because it would alienate Arab countries and harm the coalition enforcing a U.N. resolution, although it is willing to use the alliance’s military command to plan and execute air operations.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told parliament that France and Britain had agreed to put together a “political steering body” of foreign ministers of countries participating in the coalition and the Arab League that would meet in the next few days in Brussels, London or Paris and hold regular meetings.
Ambassadors of the 28 NATO states meeting in Brussels decided to activate a plan for alliance warships and aircraft to implement the U.N.-decreed arms embargo on Libya.
They also completed plans to help enforce a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone “if needed,” a statement from NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. But French and Turkish objections again prevented any consensus to put that operation under NATO command.
France led the diplomatic drive for international action on Libya and launched the first air strikes on Saturday.
Turkey says coalition air strikes have already gone beyond the U.N. framework and has so far opposed a NATO command role.
“Other people outside this building need to clarify their positions,” a NATO official said. “Capitals will need to decide what the contribution of NATO can be.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, trying to avoid getting bogged down in a war in another Muslim country, said on Monday that Washington would cede control of operations within days and NATO would have a coordinating role.
But a heated meeting of NATO ambassadors on Monday failed to resolve whether the alliance should run the no-fly zone.
The nations leading the air campaign are all prominent NATO states, but NATO’s operational role in Libya has so far been limited to expanded air surveillance.
A NATO diplomat said some allies also questioned whether a no-fly zone was necessary, given the damage already done by air strikes to Gaddafi’s military capabilities.
Diplomats said France had argued that the coalition led by France, Britain and the United States should retain political control of the mission, with NATO providing operational support, including command-and-control capabilities.
Other NATO states, most vocally Italy, argued that the alliance should either have command or no role at all.
On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suggested that air strikes launched after a meeting in Paris hosted by France on Saturday had gone beyond what had been sanctioned by a U.N. Security Council resolution.
“A NATO operation which goes outside this framework cannot be legitimized,” he told news channel CNN Turk.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini reiterated a warning that Italy would take back control of airbases it has authorized for use by allies for operations over Libya unless a NATO coordination structure was agreed.
Speaking in Moscow, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates brushed aside concerns of a potential delay in transferring command and left open the possibility that “NATO machinery” might be drawn upon.
“I don’t want to get out in front of the diplomacy that’s been going on, but I still think that a transfer within a few days is likely,” he told reporters.
“This isn’t a NATO mission. This is a mission in which the NATO machinery may be used for command and control,” he said.
In arguing against a prominent NATO role, France has cited the alliance’s poor reputation in the Arab world as a result of the war in Afghanistan and the perception that NATO is dominated by the United States.
Senior French strategic analyst Francois Heisbourg said the best outcome would be to have NATO handle military coordination but hand political decisions to an ad hoc council of states participating in the coalition, including Arab countries.
Italy should be given an equal role with France and Britain because of its geographical location, interests in Libya and the key role of its air bases, he said.
“If Turkey sticks to its line, that would rule out a NATO role either politically and militarily,” Heisbourg said. “If it lifts its objection, France would favor having NATO do the operational military coordination but not the political conduct of operations.”
Italian officials have described the current three-way command structure involving France, Britain and the United States and the resulting bombing campaign as “anarchic.”
Gianpiero Cantoni, head of the Italian Senate’s defense affairs committee, was quoted in the Corriere della Sera daily as saying that French policy appeared to be motivated by a desire to secure oil contracts with a future Libyan government, while Italy would have to face a potential flood of refugees.
On Monday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the mission should be limited to creating a no-fly zone and that Italian planes taking part would not open fire.
Additional reporting by Paul Taylor, Ilona Wissenbach, Phil Stewart and Massimiliano Di Giorgio; editing by Paul Taylor